I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, August 31, 2015

Data Wars in New Orleans

Has "reform" helped the students of New Orleans? Does the data show that school effectiveness has improved following Katrina? Is the conversion of the city's school district into a "portfolio" system a model for the rest of the nation?

If you listen to the reformsters, the answer is an unequivocal "Of course!" Not only that: anyone who questions the narrative of undeniable success in New Orleans is guilty, in the words of Campbell Brown, of "denigrat[ing] hard work & progress of LA teachers, parents & KIDS."

As if the constant droning about the "failure" of American education found at Brown's website isn't the same level of denigration. Way to elevate the conversation, Campbell...

The certainty of the reformy side in the rightness of their beliefs is, of course, a core feature of their movement. I will concede that there are those on the opposite side who rush to condemn any evidence that favors things like charter schools or merit pay or school reconstitution.

But the reformsters always seem to forget that the burden of proof is on them. That doesn't mean that every argument against reformy policies has to be rebutted beyond any doubt; it does mean, however, that reasonable critiques should be engaged beyond simple mockery.

Take Peter Cook, for example, striking back at Andrea Gabor's NY Times op-ed, which questioned the awesomeness of reform in NOLA:
While conceding that proficiency, high school graduation, and college entry rates have all risen in New Orleans over the past ten years (no small matters), Gabor attempts to diminish these accomplishments by claiming:
“But the New Orleans miracle is not all it seems. Louisiana state standards are among the lowest in the nation.”
Apparently, Professor Gabor has somehow missed the extensive national media coverage [for example, in the New York TimesPoliticoWashington PostTalking Points Memo, and even Gawker] of the battle between State Superintendent John White and Governor Bobby Jindal over the Common Core State Standards, which Louisiana adopted in 2012.
In short, the contention that Louisiana state standards are among the lowest in the nation is, to borrow Gabor’s own words, “simply false.”
Um, no.

It's quite clear to those of us who study these things that Gabor was talking about how the Louisiana's tests compare to other states' in terms of their difficulty. And Gabor is right: when mapped against the NAEP, the national standardized test, Louisiana's definition of proficiency is, in fact, quite low. It's perfectly appropriate to point this out when presenting a critique of the research that purports to show NOLA's reforms have led to better student outcomes. Why, then, does Cook snidely dismiss Gabor's point?

The reliably reformy Jon Chait has put together a collection of research that supports the NOLA success narrative. I'll admit that some of it is well worth considering. Doug Harris, for example, is a well-regarded and highly competent economist, and the work of the Education Alliance for New Orleans should be seriously considered in any conversation about school reform in New Orleans.

But no one should unquestioningly jump to the conclusion that we need to replicate NOLA in cities around the country on the basis of a brief Harris wrote for EducationNext. First of all, even he admits it doesn't document his full methods (Harris very graciously replied to an email I sent asking him when the "long form" of his research will be out; he said sometime within the next few months, hopefully).

More importantly, and as Harris says in a surprisingly level-headed interview with Matt Barnum for The Seventy Four*, there is all the world of difference between acknowledging some outcome gains in NOLA and imposing some of the reforms that have been implemented there on the rest of the country:
Imagine a hypothetical school district that's an urban district that's struggling — I understand that “hypothetical school district” might not be the best way to think about this — but a school district that's struggling, does not have any charter schools or has a limited charter sector. And they come to you and they say, “We want to replicate the New Orleans reform. Should we do it?” What are the factors you would tell them to consider and how likely would you be to recommend the New Orleans reforms?
Let me answer that by adding one more thing to what I was saying earlier about the conditions of New Orleans. One of the conditions in New Orleans was it was a very low performing district. It was a disaster by almost any measure. When I first got here I thought some of that was just hyperbole because everyone kept saying it, but now I've seen more and more objective evidence of that. The FBI had an office within the school board because there was so much corruption to investigate that they needed to have offices within the school board offices. I just got my hands on a report after many years of trying that was the Council of Great City Schools evaluating the human resources management of the district. The litany of problems in the district was just appalling, the way it operated. The outcomes were also poor as a result. It was the second lowest performing district in the second lowest performing state in the country.
If you're in a district that already functions pretty well, maybe this is not necessarily a good idea. Here you had a district that was not functioning well by any measure. I think people tend to assume that all urban districts are terrible because the scores are low but it really is true that a lot of that is driven by the demographics and the socioeconomics of the districts. That's real. There are some very good schools in urban areas and there are some districts that probably do a pretty good job. You don't want to throw that out just because of a probable misinterpretation, if they're not taking into account where students are starting.
I would tell a district or somebody advocating it in a district to look very carefully at how the traditional district is operating before going down that path.
I would also tell them all the conditions, all the things they have to do to make it work. I think people tend to think, oh we just need more charter schools. But Detroit is a case study in how that goes wrong. Detroit has a lot of charter schools — I think it's second or third in market share — but it's terrible. The system has so little coordination. [emphasis mine]
That's a point that needs to be stressed repeatedly: New Orleans is merely one example of education "reform." It doesn't necessarily "prove" the reform agenda is unfailingly successful, any more than Ohio "proves" charter schools are always doomed to failure, or Newark "proves" that school reconstitution is always a train wreck.

Social science is a messy business, and results, even in tightly controlled randomized experiments, are hard to replicate. Which means that caution is always warranted when moving from research findings to policy formation -- especially when there is substantial evidence that contradicts the portrait of New Orleans as an unbridled success:
Dropout and Graduation
The RSD graduation rate is last in the state of Louisiana at 61.1% out of 72 school systems.[xiv]The RSD is still the biggest dropout and “push out”[xv] factory in the state, with many low performing students leaving school as early as the 7th and 8th grades.[xvi]
Advanced Placement
Even though many RSD schools tout themselves as college prep in the media and public discourse, only 5.5% of their students who take Advanced Placement courses in the RSD score high enough on the AP tests to get credit. RSD Advanced Placement test results are some of the lowest in the state.[xvii]
That's Julian Vasquez-Heilig**, another well-regarded education researcher. Even if there have been significant improvements in New Orleans, by many metrics the Recovery School District and the State of Louisiana are low performing systems.

Further, as this brief from the National Education Policy Center points out, the cost of these test score gains may be unacceptably high:
“Recently, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, an organization at Tulane University dedicated to objective analysis of the New Orleans reforms, shared preliminary results from a study that reported meaningfully higher test scores following the post-Katrina reforms, even after accounting for population changes,” said Professor Huriya Jabbar, who has studied the New Orleans reforms. “However, the authors also report that the gains were not equal across groups: white students gained more than black students from the reforms.
“Furthermore, researchers have not yet determined which features of the reforms were successful (e.g., autonomy, teacher labor market reforms, and increased resources, including the influx of private philanthropic funds), as well as the role of other citywide changes in housing and employment.”
Moreover, groups of students, parents, and community members remain skeptical of the reform movement and have raised concerns that the new school system remains inequitable. For example, students and parents have raised concerns with some charter schools that have been unresponsive to students and too harsh in their disciplinary policies. After years of complaints lodged by parents about the treatment of students with special needs in the charter system, including physical and emotional abuse and “counseling out,” the parties settled a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, acknowledging these grievances and requiring independent monitoring and auditing of charter schools’ special education services. According to news reports, the decentralized, fragmented school system in New Orleans has also been particularly unprepared to serve the growing percentages of English Language Learners in the city.
Further, within the choice system family income exerts a strong influence. A recent study found that low-income families make schooling decisions differently than affluent families. Low-income families are much more constrained in their choices because of practical considerations such as after-school care and distance, and therefore measured academic outcomes play a smaller role their decisions.
Schools have also engaged in behaviors that constrain parents’ choices. A recent study revealed that school leaders in New Orleans, facing the combined pressure of recruiting more students and raising test scores, cream-skimmed the more affluent or high-achieving students through, for example, selective advertising and recruitment.
Who's right: NEPC and Vasquez Heilig, or Harris and ERA? The answer, of course, is that they both are -- but the question is flawed. It's not a matter of the data "proving" which policy course we must pursue; it's a matter of weighing the evidence within context to inform decisions about how to improve our education systems.

So what's the context of New Orleans?

Prior to Katrina, NOLA was one of the lowest-performing and most poorly managed school systems in the nation, suffering from the effects of segregation, inadequate funding, and chronic poverty. Then an unprecedented (at least in the modern Unites States) natural disaster displaced an enormous number of people, changing the demographics of the city:

Afterward, a large amount of public funds poured into the schools. The teacher workforce changed dramatically, as did the governance of the schools. Charter schools flourished, but arguably at the expense of special education students, and with great variation in their spending.

There appear to be some significant test score increases in New Orleans' schools -- although there continue to be questions as to whether or not researchers have adequately controlled for changes in the city's student population. However, the district still lags far behind the rest of the nation.

Further, while charterization was a significant change in New Orleans education policy, the expansion of charters was concurrent with increased spending on schools, large changes in social services spending and delivery, and, again, substantial changes in the demographics of the student and city population.

I think that's a fair reading of what's been happening in New Orleans -- and I think it isn't nearly enough evidence to charge into a wholesale dismantling of our urban school systems. If there is a lesson to be learned from New Orleans, it's that too many in the education policy arena are ready to jump on a study or two that confirm their ideological predilections without stopping to consider all of the ramifications of what they propose.

In other words: No one has come close to showing that New Orleans has "proved" anything about how to improve America's urban school districts.

So relax, reformsters: it's called The Big Easy for a reason.

God bless NOLA.

* Just to be clear: I'm not surprised that either Harris or Barnum is level-headed; rather, I'm surprised such a nuanced view showed up in The Seventy Four.

** So I see a lot of criticism out there of this brief. I won't defend it, but I will point out it shows Louisiana is a low performing state on the NAEP, which counts for something if the measure of success in NOLA is how the city does compared to the rest of the state. Also, I haven't read Lopez and Olson's NAEP study, so I'll reserve judgment on that until I do...

Hmm, looks like that hasn't been published. Which is the problem with this whole conversation, isn't it? I wish NPE had waited and given us some real depth, much as I wish EducationNext had given us the long-form results of Harris's work.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Karen Lewis on Carly Fiorina: "That's a Lie"

Carly Fiorina was one of the six Republicans to participate in Campbell Brown's education summit (which was really nothing more than a teachers union-bashing fest). As I pointed out, Fiorina was stunningly ill-informed and incoherent on education policy.

But that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about her recent surge in the polls. Ostensibly, she showed she was a serious candidate in the first Republican debate, demonstrating a command of policy that impressed voters. But her appearance with Brown actually displayed the opposite: Fiorina doesn't much care if she can back up her facts of not, so long as they help her score political points.

For example:
"It’s why the head of the teachers union in Chicago, when they struck, against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, it’s why she could say: 'We can’t be held accountable for the performance of students in our classrooms because too many of them are poor and come from broken families.' So what was she saying? If you’re poor and come from a broken family we can’t teach you because you can’t learn. That is not the American way."
That's from her interview with Brown; Karen Lewis is the union leader Fiorina is referring to. It's a damning accusation, especially considering Lewis is a teacher herself, with many years of experience in the Chicago Public Schools chemistry labs.

I thought it was worth asking Lewis what she thought of this attack. As usual, she minced no words:
"It's a lie. I never said that, but Fiorina has used that tired trope repeatedly. What I said was the VAM portion did not take into consideration the condition of our students' lives.”
VAM stands for Value-Added Modeling, the test-based component of the Chicago teacher evaluation system. Lewis has good company: the American Statistical Association has strongly questioned the use of VAM, stating: "Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.

Maybe Fiorina thinks the ASA also doesn't believe in "the American way."

I have searched for any primary source that documents Lewis saying that Chicago's teachers shouldn't be held accountable for their students' learning. So far, I've found nothing. Here's CTU's official position on test-based evaluation:
What is CTU’s position on the inclusion of student growth measures for teacher evaluation?
Student growth is supposed to be fairer than just comparing where students are at the end of the year without looking at where they started.  However, the student growth measure says much more about student factors like health, poverty, and neighborhood than it does about the teacher.  Student growth is actually a measure of growth on the tests--leaving out social, emotional, and non-tested academic growth.  CTU is not in favor of the use of these student growth measures, especially the “value-added measure” used for elementary student growth, as it is statistically unreliable and cannot account for all factors that impact student achievement on tests.
What's funny is that Fiorina herself thinks testing companies have too much influence over American education. So, does she agree with Lewis that VAM is a pernicious influence, or doesn't she?

I've contacted Fiorina's campaign to ask for a link to a source that backs up her attack on Lewis. So far, no response. I guess that's "the American way" these days...

If and when I hear from Fiorina's people, I'll update this post.

Is misquoting teachers "the American way"?

Monday, August 24, 2015

The American Public Understands: Our Schools Are Underfunded

The evidence has been accumulating for a while: America's schools do not have the funds they need to achieve the results that we expect. Most states have flat funding systems that do not move resources into high-poverty districts where it is needed. School funding is, in most states, still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession. Yet we know that money matters in education.

It appears that the American public understands this (click to enlarge):

72 percent of Republicans say funding is at least "somewhat important" for the schools. Perhaps more interesting, the view of the public at large on the importance of school funding tracks very closely to the view of public school parents.

You'll also notice blacks are more likely to say funding is "very important" than whites. Perhaps because too many black children are attending schools with inadequate funding?

This attitude toward school funding is not an anomaly:
Lack of financial support is the biggest problem facing American schools, according to respondents to the PDK/Gallup poll. That’s been a consistent message from the public for the past 10 years. Having sufficient money to spend would improve the quality of the public schools, according to a sizable portion of American adults. Nearly half of public school parents said having sufficient money was key to improving the quality of the public schools. [emphasis mine]
The message from the public is quite clear. And yet, according to the Republican presidential candidates and what I perceive to be the majority of the education "reform" industry, funding reform isn't nearly as important as implementing test-based accountability systems, expanding "choice," and gutting teacher workplace protections.

Yes, it appears the public likes some forms of school choice... but why is that? Could it be that no one wants to "choose" an inadequately funded school for their child? Those who point to allegedly long waiting lists for charter schools neglect to mention that those waiting lists are only for a few, select, high-performing schools. Most of those charters enjoy a resource advantage over both their fellow less-affluent charters ("research" by the charter industry that shows otherwise is deeply flawed) often thanks to large philanthropic grants. These charters also have smaller expenses due to the fact that they tend to serve those students who cost less to educate.

The reformsters pretend that urban parents are "choosing" schools that have non-unionized staffs which allow them to "innovate." But I've seen little evidence these high-flying charters do anything with their curricula or teaching methods that's truly innovative.

Here's a much more plausible explanation: When urban parents "choose" high-profile charter schools, they are really "choosing" schools with resource advantages. It just makes sense: if the public believes that school funding matters, and public schools are underfunded, why wouldn't they move their children to better-funded, high-profile charter schools -- even if they don't agree with many of the policies and practices of those schools?

If your choice is between a filthy, dangerous, underfunded school and a charter that gets significant philanthropic support -- well, there's really no choice at all, is there? Even if that charter does not afford you the same rights as a parent as a traditional public school. Because, as the public has said for ten years, inadequate school funding is a real problem in many of our districts.

Those who spend their time focusing on teacher tenure and union-bashing while brushing aside school funding reform have interests that are not aligned with the American public's. Golly, I wonder why...

OUR kids' schools have plenty of money!

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Clown Car World of Republican Education Policy

I tried to get through all six of the candidate interviews at Campbell's Brown's little union-bashing festival, but I honestly couldn't take any more and skipped John Kasich. As Peter Greene said, it's easy to get sucked in at first... but after a while, the sheer tonnage of BS just gets to be too much.

Peter did a nice job cataloging the memes the Republican candidates spewed throughout the day. I'd like to follow up and present some actual evidence that refutes just about all of their reformy talking points:

- "Teachers unions protect bad teachers and protect the status quo, which has kept students from achieving." There is no evidence that teachers unions have a negative effect on student learning.

- "Vouchers! Vouchers! Vouchers! Vouchers!" No! No! No! No!

- "Charter schools succeed because they are free of bureaucracy." Everyone agrees that charter schools vary substantially in effectiveness. The overall effect of the entire charter sector on student outcomes, however, is very small. High-profile, "successful" charter operators are only a small portion of the overall sector, which includes many for-profit operators running schools that have demonstrated problems with waste, fraud, and abuse.

As to the small number of "successful" charter operators: evidence continues to show much of their "success" is due to serving different student populations than their hosting school districts. Often attrition rates are very high at these charters, and they don't "backfill" open seats. Many also enjoy significant advantages in resources over their hosts.

- "Competition increases pressure on public schools to perform." While there is some evidence accountability pressures can raise test scores, the effects of private voucher schools on public schools are practically quite small. There is certainly no evidence that voucher accountability pressures are better than other types of reforms.

- "We need to reward good teachers and get rid of the bad ones, just like the 'real world.'" There is little evidence that merit pay systems improve student test scores. And merit pay, as envisioned by "reformers," is actually quite rare in the private sector.

- "Tenure and seniority are drags on student learning." There is no evidence this is true. Teachers show returns in effectiveness from experience late into their careers. The notion of widespread teacher "burn-out" is contradicted by what we know about experience and results. Tenure has never stopped a school district from firing an incompetent teacher, and protects the interests of students and taxpayers as well as teachers.

- "Poor children can learn." Of course they can -- teachers will be the first to tell you so. But poverty has a profound effect on student learning; it's insane to pretend otherwise.

- "More money doesn't lead to better results." This drivel can be traced back to one economist whose work on school finance has been repeatedly debunked. Money, in fact, has a profound effect on school effectiveness.

- "Technology! Technology! Technology!" It's great -- but all attempts to use it to replace traditional schools have failed.

To be fair: this garbage gets repeated by plenty of Democrats. The aversion to evidence found in the reformster world is, sadly, a bipartisan affliction.

But these six Republicans took reform-style truthiness to new depths. Among the individual moments that stood out:

- Jeb! Bush bragging on Florida's 4th grade reading scores, and ignoring every other result on the NAEP that might call into question the awesomeness of his policies.

- Carly Fiorina's claim that California spends more than 48 other states per pupil on K-12 education, which is so completely wrong it's embarrassing. Fiorina also grossly misquoted Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union (more on this later, I hope).

- John Kasich -- again, I didn't watch, but the media jumped on this -- saying he'd close all teachers lounges if he could, a comment so stupid I need say no more.

- Scott Walker claiming he gets education advice from Howard Fuller, who promptly turned around and distanced himself from Walker and many of his anti-teacher, anti-public school policies. Walker also spun a tall tale of a teacher who allegedly lost her job to seniority, despite the fact this same teacher has asked him repeatedly to stop telling her story.

- Bobby Jindal predictably bragged on the alleged success of the charterization of New Orleans' schools. The evidence is slowly dripping in (I am waiting for the real research, not reports about the research that can't be properly examined), but the costs of "reform" in New Orleans, even if they lead to some test score gains, seems unacceptably high.

- Chris Christie -- you can imagine my reaction to this one. So much nonsense to debunk, but perhaps the lowest point was hearing him talk about his own children's education without mentioning how their schools reflect his screaming hypocrisy on education funding.

I don't know about you, but this entire exercise left me wanting a long, hot shower and a strong drink. And, again, the Democrats will be a bit better -- but not by much. The best we can hope for in this election, I think, is a candidate who doesn't treat the teachers unions like the American Nazi Party.

In other words: get ready to set a very low bar in the general election.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Jeb!'s Florida Education Meh-racle

After watching Jeb! Bush talk about his Florida education "miracle" at Campbell's Brown's little union-bashing festival, I thought it would be instructive to make a quick graph:

I've standardized Florida's scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress over time as a way of comparing the state to the other 49 plus DC. The NAEP tests reading and math in Grades 4 and 8. Upward bars are above average scores; downward bars are below average.

You'll notice that Jeb! is always bragging on Florida's Grade 4 Reading scores. What he rarely mentions, however, is how his state does on Grade 8 tests, or on math tests. This graph makes clear why: Florida has been either at or below the (weighted) average on Grade 4 math and on Grade 8 reading and math for the last two administrations of the test. Yes, there was a bit of a bump on Grade 4 math in the 2000s, but the scores came back to Earth.

Does this look like a miracle to you?

Normally, I think any politician who gets up in front of people and brags on how his policies turned around his state's schools practically overnight is being ridiculous. There are just too many factors other than policy changes involved in affecting test scores: economic changes, demographic changes, cohort effects of other sorts, measurement errors, and so on.

In this case, however, I do think we have to give Jeb! some "credit" for those Grade 4 reading scores. Because, according to this analysis by Walter Haney, Florida did, in fact, implement a policy that changed the trajectory of Grade 4 scores (p.6):
But particularly notable regarding how Florida boosted NAEP grade 4 results in 2005 are the grade 3 and 4 results for 200-3-04. What these results indicate is that in the 2003-04 school year Florida started flunking far more children – on the order of 10-12% overall – to repeat grade 3. Hence it is clear what caused the dramatic jump in grade 4 NAEP results for 2005. Florida had started flunking more children before they reached grade 4.

What caused the dramatic decrease in the race gap in NAEP results in Florida? Grade transition analyses of enrollment data make the answer abundantly clear. I will not present detailed results in the short time available here. But what I can say by way of summary is that analyses of grade enrollments in Florida by race (Black, Hispanic and White) make it clear that when Florida started in 2003-04 to flunk more children to repeat grade 3, these were disproportionately more Black and Hispanic children (15-20% of whom were flunked) than White ones (about 4-6%% of whom were flunked in grade 3). Thus it is clear that the NAEP grade 4 results for 2005 reflected not any dramatic improvements in elementary education in the state. Rather they were an indirect reflection of Florida policy that resulted in two to three times larger percentages of minority than White children being flunked to repeat grade 3.

This is, regrettably, a tragedy in the making. Research now makes it abundantly clearly that flunking children to repeat grades in school is not only ineffective in boosting their achievement, but also dramatically increases the probability that they will leave school before high school graduation (see, for example, Shepard & Smith, 1989; Heubert & Hauser, 1999; Jimerson, 2001; Jimerson, Anderson & Whipple, 2002). I will not try to summarize here the abundant evidence on these two points, save to note that considerable research has found that among children who are overage for grade in grade 9 (regardless of whether they were flunked in grade 9 or earlier grades), 65-90% will not persist in high school to graduation. [emphasis mine]
Florida has since rethought its policy of mandatory Grade 3 retention. Good for them.

Much as I don't want to, I do have to agree with Matt DiCarlo: there is some evidence that some of Jeb! Bush's policies, particularly the use of accountability pressures, did indeed raise test scores modestly. Those of us who have serious reservations about the overuse of standardized tests should acknowledge that there may, in fact, be benefits to their use in accountability systems (although I would say the way Bush used them probably caused more harm than good - more later).

But Jeb! and his acolytes have so oversold his education "successes" that it's nearly impossible to have a serious conversation about what may have gone right in Florida -- let alone what has definitely gone wrong.

There was no Florida education "miracle." Anyone who says otherwise is selling a bag of magic beans.
But if I can't own the Florida "miracle," what do I have left?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Blog Comment Spammers Making Me Nuts

I've been trying to block my comment spammers, but it's getting increasingly hard. I just called one particularly awful abuser -- a small company right here in NJ that apparently hired a hack to do their social media -- and told them I'd consider legal action if they don't knock it off.

I'm turning on comment moderation for a while. And I'm considering migrating over to Wordpress, which will likely cause a big drop in my traffic for a while. But it may be worth it just to stop the spam, and to have some better control over the design of the blog.

I've noticed that most of the commenting about my posts takes place on Facebook or Twitter anyway. That's fine; both seem to have much better control over spammers attaching themselves to my accounts than Blogspot.

For those who write real comments here regularly, thank you - I really do appreciate it.

School "Turnaround": A Fool's Errand

Bob Braun tells us the Newark Public Schools are plowing ahead with their school "turnaround" plans as part of One Newark, all evidence to the contrary be damned:
The latest round of state-mandated school “reforms” imposed on the children, parents, and employees in the Newark public schools has created a bizarre situation in which virtually the entire staffs of so-called “turnaround” schools will be new and unknown to both neighborhood residents and to each other, many of these new teachers already have signaled their opposition to the changes mandated by the reform, and  faculty will be working two different schedules in the same schools.
That could hardly be a recipe for success. So, maybe it is a deliberate plan for failure.
The absurd set of circumstances was created when then state-imposed superintendent Cami Anderson announced that nine more schools would be added to the list of so-called “turnaround” schools that would–theoretically–operate on an extended day schedule with a staff of committed volunteers who had bought into the reform.
But it hasn’t turned out that way. Teachers had the right to opt out of the reform although they were warned they would be transferred to other schools, no matter how long they had worked at their home school. Many–if not most–teachers refused and they were transferred.
But here’s the kicker: Many were transferred from their home “turnaround” school to a different “turnaround” school, thereby defeating the whole point of the turnaround.
“Think about it. A teacher gets punished for refusing to sign a waiver agreeing to work extended hours in her current school because it will become a turnaround school. That punishment is transfer to another school that has been designated a turnaround school because there haven’t been enough teachers willing to volunteer.”
Turnaround schools are, in effect, swapping teachers–something that might almost be considered funny except for the devastating impact on the children and parents in neighborhood schools.
Read the whole thing if you can stomach it, then ask yourself this: what educator would ever sign off on such a transparently idiotic scheme? The answer, of course, is that no experienced educator ever would -- which is why the plan has been OK'd by State Superintendent Chris Cerf, who has never run a school building in his life, let alone a public school district.

As in Chicago, the district, populated at its top ranks by bunches of non-educators, wants Newark's teachers to accept a host of reforms that have no evidence to back them up: school "renewals," test-based merit pay, large-scale charter school expansion, "choice," and so on. The district also, like Chicago, wants its teachers to work longer hours for small increases in pay.

Newark's teachers have dared to point out that they are professionals and should be paid more at a professional wage if they are expected to take on additional work. For their troubles, many who have refused to go along with this have been placed into an "educators without placement" pool. The media has swallowed whole the idea that many of these teachers are ineffective, but I've seen no evidence that this is the case.

This constant disruption -- which is occurring at all levels of the district -- is premised on the idea that schools can be improved by bringing in the right "talent." This is the argument I hear from the charter sector of the city: they recruit the "best" teachers, which leads to the "best" results (of course, there's never any acknowledgement they somehow manage to wind up with the "best" students as well, or that they have different levels of resources available).

The problem with this argument is that it doesn't acknowledge the importance of building schools as social organizations that allow everyone to achieve good results, regardless of their "talent." Obviously, churning and burning staff is not the way to create these sorts of schools.

I'm not saying talent and experience don't matter -- they do. I'm also, once again, not saying poorly performing teachers don't exist -- they do. And I'm not saying those poor performers shouldn't be identified and given help or even removed from their schools -- they should be.

But there's no point in recruiting good people and holding them accountable if the system in which they work is fundamentally flawed. Which is why merely shuffling teachers around in a school reconstitution scheme does not work, particularly in the absence of any examination of whether schools have adequate resources.

My own work on Newark's school "renewal" efforts confirms this:

Growth measures cratered in the year after "renewal." The only they bounced back is undoubtedly because SGPs measure schools against peers with similar academic records; the "renew" schools were now being compared to a lower-growing group of schools.

Len Pugliese found similar evidence when he looked at proficiency rates:

To make matters worse, it looks like the "renewals" disproportionately affected teachers of color:

Does Cerf know this? Do his lieutenants in NPS? If they don't, they should. If they do, why are they going ahead with this madness? What is the point?

Can you tell I'm getting more than a little frustrated here? How much longer do I and others have to keep beating the drum before someone in charge finally listens to what we're saying? How much more evidence do we need to present before the decision makers (and their allies in the media) acknowledge that One Newark is not working? How much longer will these people value their ideological predilections over the best interests of the children and families of Newark?

School "turnaround" in Newark, as everywhere, is a fool's errand. If we're ever going to improve our schools, let's at least start by acknowledging this basic truth.

Accountability begins at home.

ADDING: Happy anniversary.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

How Economists Hired By Hedge Fund Maniacs Justify Shafting Puerto Rico's Students

Diane Ravitch points us to yet another example of how the very wealthiest in this country are pushing the idea that their having to take a haircut on their investments is a greater threat to our American way of life than schools having enough money to educate poor kids:
The New York Times reported in June that hedge funds invested heavily in Puerto Rico, feeling sure that the Puerto Rican government could turn the economic crisis around. 
Now that the debt crisis has worsened, hedge funds are advising the government of Puerto Rico to save money by closing some schools, laying off teachers, and cutting university budgets. Most people think of education as the seed corn of future growth, but not the hedge funds. They want their debts repaid. Maybe they will propose bringing the African model of cheap, for-profit schools to Puerto Rico, which will cut costs considerably while opening new investment opportunities. (See here.)
A side note: as Diane points out, the Times reported that one of the hedge funds with an interest in Puerto Rico has a special place in the annals of New Jersey education "reform":
Hedge funds like Appaloosa Management, Paulson & Company and Blue Mountain Capital gathered in a conference room at the Barclays offices in Midtown Manhattan last September to talk about what was then the hottest trade: Puerto Rico. 
An hour into the conversation, however, it became clear that if things started going bad, not everyone in the room was going to get along. Some had wagered on real estate, while others had bought up the debts of the central government and its troubled electric utility. [emphasis mine]
Appaloosa was, of course, founded by David Tepper, one of the two sugar daddies funding the reformy exploits of B4K. As the Star-Ledger's Tom Moran loves to tell us, Tepper can be trusted on education policy, because only conspiracy theorists would ever believe he has a personal stake in the outcome. I admit I don't know what Appaloosa's position is related to Puerto Rico, but no matter what, try to reconcile Moran's contention with the rest of this post.

Diane points us to a CNN Money piece about how these hedge fundies are prescribing some awfully bitter medicine for Puerto Rico:
Puerto Rico went into default Monday for the first time in its history. The island's governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, has announced a "working group" to figure out a plan by the end of the summer. 
But a group of 34 hedge funds, led by Fir Tree Partners, already have a recommendation. They funded a report by three economists that calls for Puerto Rico to close some schools, reduce university subsidies and fire teachers so it can pay back its debt.  
It might sound cruel, but the hedge funds have a point. One of the central criticisms of Puerto Rico's debt crisis has been the government's tendency to spend and borrow way beyond its limits. 
It's the default position of the media when reporting on economic policy, folks: it's always the fault of the leeches who force the government to grow, and never the people who are accumulating insane piles of capital. Greece, Iceland, Argentina, America... always blame that voracious, socialist, government juggernaut. And the head of the beast, naturally, is those horrible, overspending schools:
Consider this: Puerto Rico's student population has declined 25% -- or almost 200,000 students -- between 2004 and 2013. But government spending on schools rose 39% -- or $1.4 billion -- during that time, according to the report sponsored by the hedge funds and authored by three former International Monetary Fund economists.  
That math doesn't work out. Neither does this: between 2004 and 2013, the island's population declined by 212,000 people. But total government spending jumped up 29% over the same time, according to the report.
In Douglas Adams's So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish, Ford Prefect encounters a "working girl" on a planet with a degree in social economics. She makes her living salving the guilty consciences of the rich: "It's OK, honey, it's really OK, you got to learn to feel good about it. Look at the way the whole economy is structured..." Quite an apt description of that group of economists who make their daily bread by justifying the shafting of poor children in the service of "efficiency."

This report, written by a trio of economists with impressive freshwater degrees and ties to the IMF, does call for more revenue collection, but mostly through increased compliance. Of course, they also want to move income taxes to a flat rate. But their main recommendation for cleaning up Puerto Rico's debt mess is to drastically cut social service spending, starting with education. They helpfully include this graph to justify the carnage:

Nothing like double y-axes to make a case for the "failure" of education spending efficiencies, huh? This one (so far as I can tell given the incredibly poor documentation of methods found in this report) doesn't even report spending figures in constant dollars -- but that's a minor concern. What's missing is any context for us to determine whether Puerto Rico is so profligate in its education spending that we should buy into the argument of these hedge-funded economists that it's well past time to cull funds from those overfed schools and send the savings back to Wall Street.

Well, let me present a few graphs of my own. Fair warning: these will come with many caveats attached to them. Comparing Puerto Rico to the 50 states isn't like comparing New Jersey to California, for many obvious (and not so obvious) reasons. Still, I think we'll find this issue isn't nearly as simple as our slash-and-burn friends imply it is.

Let's start by looking at how much Puerto Rico actually has spent to educate its students:

I've seen some try to make the case Puerto Rico is spending upwards of $11,000 per student, but I have no idea where those figures come from. NCES, the research arm of the USDOE, gives the historical figures above, adjusted so they are in 2011 dollars. Clearly, Puerto Rico is far behind the rest of the US in the amount its spends to educate its children. Yes, things have improved over the last couple of decades or so: a difference of $4188 in 1996 shrank to $3228 in 2011 (in 2011 dollars).

That said, the amount spent per pupil in Puerto Rico is still way behind the mainland. Of course, it's hard to make a direct comparison here, given the difference in the purchasing power of the dollar in the continental US (let alone the variation between the states). Before we get to that, however, let's consider another big difference:

Here's a quick-and-dirty graph showing the differences in school-aged poverty rates between the 50 states, DC, and Puerto Rico. Not even Mississippi or DC come close to matching Puerto Rico's 55 percent student poverty rate. It's extraordinary, and it's probably underreported. The entire island's child poverty rate is as high as Camden, NJ, America's poorest city.

But these guys want to cut funds to Puerto Rico's schools. Think about that.

As regular readers know, money does matter in schools, especially when it comes to poor children. So let's plot some slightly different spending figures against our poverty measures and see what we get.

Per pupil spending here is for 2011-12 from NCES (Table 236.75). In the US, the trend is actually opposite of what the research suggests we should do: lower-poverty states spend more per pupil. But that aside, Puerto Rico is near the bottom of the list in terms of governmental bodies' spending on education -- yet its poverty rate is much, much higher than any state's. Only Idaho, with a fraction of Puerto Rico's poverty rate, spends less per pupil on schooling.

Again, this comparison, no matter how instructive, is still inadequate. One issue is the difference in labor costs between states. Lori Taylor at Texas A&M has a Comparable Wage Index that many of us use when doing research; unfortunately, Puerto Rico is not included. But even if it were, we'd have to approach using it very cautiously.

The fact is that Puerto Rico isn't just another state: its language, its culture, its economics, and many other factors make comparing it to the rest of the US quite difficult. It is possible that the cost of obtaining comparable results to the states is significantly different in a way that can't be captured well by something like the CWI. But that doesn't mean we don't have some clues -- here's one:

This isn't precisely the staffing costs for schools, but it's a decent proxy for an initial investigation. Puerto Rico's education and heath workers are way less expensive than those in the states. But that doesn't mean they are living lives that are equivalent to the lives of middle-class teachers on the mainland. In fact, the dollar does not go very far in Puerto Rico:
Puerto Ricans in the United States bring home less money than the general population as a whole, but they also have to pay more for their housing. Out of 449,377 Puerto Rican homeowners with a mortgage, 48.5 percent spend more than 30 percent of their income on mortgage costs while 38 percent of the population as a whole pay more than 30 percent.
Puerto Ricans nationally have to do more with less,” said Carlos Vargas-Ramos, research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. “Their burden is higher than for the population as a whole.” 
Puerto Ricans have the lowest rate of homeownership when compared to other groups.
For those who own homes, the median monthly costs of owning their homes are also higher: $1,651 for Puerto Ricans and $1,496 for the population as a whole.
They also spend more for rentals, which is the primary housing market for Puerto Ricans. Costs are higher for Puerto Ricans who rent, $890, than for the total population, which is $855. [emphasis mine]
If you have the talent and the training to teach and you live in Puerto Rico, you'll make more money in the states, and your pay will go further. Why, then, would you ever stay? This is a critical question, because Puerto Rico really needs a strong teaching force:
As far as education, Puerto Ricans are notably overrepresented among those who have less than a high school education, 25 percent, and those underrepresented among those who have a college degree or higher level, 16 percent.
On a positive note, Puerto Ricans who graduate high school or have earned an associate’s degree have earnings almost as much to the population as a whole
I'm always hearing from reformy types that education is the pathway to the middle class (all others doing necessary work that doesn't require college are left hanging, however). Why, then, would hedge-fundies, who subsidize charter schools on this very premise, think it was a good idea to slash education in Puerto Rico when it really does return higher wages for the island's citizens? If you want to grow Puerto Rico out of its debt, why slash the one thing -- education -- that we know will grow the island's wages?

I know next to nothing about macroeconomics, but I understand that governments should not borrow with abandon without a clear plan for repayment, and without using their borrowings for investments that will generate economic growth. I actually don't think it's fair to shift the entire blame for Puerto Rico's woes on Wall Street, although they certainly deserve some of it.

It's clear to me, however, that forcing Puerto Rico to fully repay the hedge funds while cutting school spending is both stupid and immoral. This is an island that desperately needs a high-quality education system as part of a program of social rebuilding. From all early indications, Puerto Rico has been inexcusably stingy in funding its schools and paying its teachers.

There's much work to do to uncover the full story of education spending in Puerto Rico; I hope I'll get a chance to work on this some more. But there's more than enough evidence right now to put a halt to any notion that the island's schools are stuffed with cash and ready for a good slashing. Puerto Rico's poor and deserving students deserve far better than that.

You want to cut funding to their schools? Seriously?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Anti-Union, Freeloading Teachers Sound Off

If you're a teacher, get ready to hear this name a lot this year: Rebecca Friedrichs. She's the lead petitioner in a case that will go before the Supreme Court in its next term; if she wins, the unions that represent teachers will face an enormous threat.

Friedrichs v. California Teacher Association hinges on a central question: can a public employee union compel all of the employees its represents in collective bargaining to pay for representing them in negotiations? Understand that no one is ever forced to join a union, as doing so would violate the First Amendment. But governments can and do designate in law that unions are the representatives of public employees in collective bargaining agreements.

Because these unions must represent all workers, whether they are members or not, they have a problem: free riders can benefit from negotiations yet not have to pay the costs for having unions represent them at the bargaining table. So unions charge "agency fees" to all of the employees they represent. These fees are a fraction of the total costs of membership dues, albeit a large fraction. If any public employee chooses to opt out of membership, they are refunded a part of those dues.

Ostensibly, this keeps public employees from subsidizing political activities, like lobbying, that members may disagree with. Of course, the workers who opt out can still benefit from those political activities, which means there is plenty of potential for free-riding already baked into the system.

A 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education upheld the constitutionality of this agreement. I'm not a Supreme Court expert by any means, but it's been fairly well known that Samuel Alito, one of the court's most politically conservative justices, has wanted to overturn Abood for some time. Given the current make up of the court, he may well get his wish this year.

Friedrichs is being argued by a cabal of anti-unionists, hoping to smash the union movement once and for all by attacking it in the public sector where it is currently at its strongest. Nearly everyone agrees that overturning Abood would be both a radical rejection of precedent and an enormous blow to the power of all public employee unions, especially those representing teachers.

In fact, the only people who don't seem to see it this way are Rebecca Friedrichs and her fellow teacher-petitioners.

The Washington Post recently interviewed Friedrichs and Harlan Elrich, another one of the plaintiffs. Friedrichs is clearly comfortable in the spotlight (take a look at her posed photo) and will undoubtedly be trotted out in front of the media this fall by the anti-union forces backing the case's prosecution.

But if she wants to garner any sympathy from her fellow teachers, she really should work out her talking points a little more:
What have your experiences been with your union? 
Friedrichs: When I was a student teacher in 1987, I was being trained by an outstanding master teacher, but next door to us was a teacher who had become, in my opinion, abusive to her little first graders. I would witness every day as she would be lining them up outside the classroom. She’d grab them by the arms, she’d yank them over, she’d yell right in their faces. I asked my master teacher, “What can we do about this awful situation?” She sat me down and she said, “Today is your lesson on the teachers union.” She told me about tenure and that districts really struggle to rid themselves of these teachers. And I was shocked.
At that point I was really soured on union representation.
These are the sorts of stories I hear all the time from teachers who hold contrarian views -- and you know what? They always ring false. A first grade teacher was man-handling students and yelling in their faces, and Friedrich's "outstanding" mentor just shrugged her shoulders? In my experience, that teacher would have been dressed down immediately by her principal and her colleagues and put on warning to get her act together.

In any case, these are the sort of anecdotes that are impossible to verify. Certainly, there are bad teachers out there; no one thinks otherwise. All any of us who advocate for tenure have said, however, is that after a teacher demonstrates over a period of years that she is competent, there should be a hearing before that teacher is dismissed for incompetence. And if we don't get to retain this basic protection, we run the great risk of turning our schools into political patronage factories.

Friedrichs goes on to complain that she has been shunned by her fellow teachers for having anti-union views. She says she was "abused" for her pro-voucher stance (seems to me this sort of hyperbole is fair ground to question whether those first graders she saw as a student teacher really were "abused" as well).

Well, boo-freakin'-hoo: believe it or not, holding unpopular views can tend to make you unpopular, especially when you are actively undermining the workplace protections and rights to collective bargaining teachers have fought to retain for decades.

Elrich also appears to revel in his contrarian ways:
Recently in California they had the vote on same-sex marriages. I am against same-sex marriages, and from my understanding the union put a lot of money into supporting them. And they have put money into many Democratic candidates, all the way up to presidential elections — candidates I do not support. 
I never knew I could opt out until a few years ago.
Well, whose fault is that? Were you deceived or simply ignorant? Does the union have an obligation to hold your hand, or are you an adult who can figure these things out for yourself?

According to the CTA's brief, all employees are provided with a "Hudson notice," which allows them simply check a box to receive the rebate of their dues that go toward non-negotiating activities. Furthermore, by simply checking another box, that employee triggers a process, entirely at the union's expense, where they can challenge whether the agency fee is properly set. It's absurd to think Elrich was in the dark for years except for his own indifference.

As to Elrich's objection to same-sex marriages: hey, this is America, and everyone is entitled to be as bigoted as they want. Abood made certain that Elrich doesn't have to have his dues go toward supporting to right of two people who love each other to get married: that's the whole point of the ruling. He only has to pay for the union's activities as related to representing him in bargaining. Does Elrich even understand what this case is actually about?

Apparently not:
You have opted out of the portion of union dues that goes to political activities. You’re just paying for the union’s collective bargaining activities, which directly benefits you. But you say that you’re still subsidizing the union’s political speech. Explain that. 
Elrich: I believe they’re using my money for politics, whether they say they are or not. I just think they’re putting my money into other things besides the negotiations and they call it collective bargaining. I don’t feel good about it. Pretty much everything the union does is political.
If Elrich thinks his agency fees are being used to advance other sorts of political activities, he's making a different argument than the one found in the petition that bears his name. Because the central argument there is not that the unions are calling other sorts of political activity negotiating -- it's that negotiating, in and of itself, is an inherently political activity. Again, does Elrich even know this?

I'll give Friedrichs a little credit; she does seem to at least partially get this point, even if her thinking is rather muddled:
Friedrichs: Here in California, most public officials have been put into office by union dollars. So you’ve put them into office and now you come to the bargaining table. The official you put into office is one side and the union is on the other side and you’re bargaining for taxpayer money, only the taxpayer doesn’t get invited to the table. That’s political, in my opinion.
Collective bargaining is being used to push for things that I would never agree to.
Funny thing: if teachers unions are so damn powerful, why are they suffering a wage penalty? Why do even the reformiest reformsters like Frank Bruni understand that teachers are underpaid relative to their education and the importance of their work? Why is teacher pay in the US so lousy compared to other industrialized countries?

The idea that teachers unions have stacked school boards with their favored candidates and are now rolling in dough is laughable on its face. And, of course, teachers are taxpayers, too.

Again, the central argument put forward in these teachers' own petition is that negotiating is inherently political speech. Teachers, therefore, can't be compelled to subsidize bargaining, as their First Amendment rights would be violated.

I'm no lawyer, but this strikes me as wrong for two reasons. First, California law says that the union must negotiate on behalf of all employees; more specifically, it says the union can't make deals for its members that are better than the deals made for non-members. But if the union must negotiate, how can it possibly do so without the necessary resources? How can the law force the union to do something without creating a revenue stream for it?

Second, nothing is stopping any teacher from exercising his or her First Amendment rights to speak out about a negotiation -- even if they want to engage in speech antithetical to their own interests. I mean, no one is stopping Friedrichs from saying, for example, this:
We have this huge pension crisis in our country and they keep pushing for these defined-benefit plans. I’d be happy with a defined contribution plan. We’re being asked to fund collective bargaining that’s highly political using taxpayer money and I don’t have a choice.
That's wrong; you do have a choice. You can choose to teach in a non-unionized private school. You can choose to teach in a non-unionized charter school. You can choose to lead a movement in your district to de-certify your union. You can run for union office on a platform of gutting pensions, gain support from your fellow teachers who are just going to love the idea of giving them up, and then surrender your retirement.

In fact, if you two think you're so overpaid, why don't you exercise your First Amendment rights and give back the money that you think you don't deserve? I'm sure your district's business manager will happily take your check.

The idea that anyone has unrestricted rights to free speech is, of course, silly -- but it's particularly true for teachers. You can't publicly discuss a child's IEP. You can't indoctrinate students with your personal views -- an act of speech, in my view, that is far more political and, consequently, far more entitled to First Amendment protections that merely engaging in collective bargaining.

The notion, then, that Friedrichs' and Elrich's rights are being grossly violated because they are being forced to pay for a service they are benefitting from is, in my view, absurd. They have a plethora of ways to express their dissatisfaction with the union's bargaining positions; moreover, they have the ability to take action and change how their union operates.

But that would require work on their part. It's much easier to grouse about how unfairly you're being treated while freeloading off of others:
Getting the benefits of the union’s collective bargaining efforts without paying anything to support the union — some people call that freeloading.
Friedrichs: I’ve never asked the union to represent me in the first place. They’re the ones who asked for laws to give them this authority to negotiate on behalf of everybody.
Elrich: There are enough people who believe in the union that it will stay strong. Does that make me a freeloader? I don’t believe so.
Pal, you're free to also believe the moon is made of cheese -- but that don't make it so. You are a freeloader, and you're going to hurt a lot of families, including your own, with your flippant disregard for your colleagues' hard-earned collective bargaining rights.

Sorry if that hurts your feelings.